- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has taken an uncharacteristic stance against President Donald Trump during his final weeks as commander-in-chief.
- McConnell is leading the charge for the first successful veto override of Trump's presidency after the president vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act.
- The Kentucky Republican is also doing eveything he can to derail a push for COVID-19 stimulus checks to be raised to $2000, which Trump has come out in support of in recent days.
- McConnell is poised to win these battles but it could backfire and cost the GOP its majority in the Senate given the popularity of $2000 checks among voters, and the impending Georgia Senate runoff election.
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has generally been a steadfast ally of President Donald Trump, voting in line with the commander-in-chief the vast majority of the time and using his immense influence to push his GOP colleagues to do the same.
But in the final weeks of Trump's tenure, McConnell has pitted himself against the president on both the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and bigger direct payments for Americans ($2,000 checks) as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the country.
The lame duck battle between McConnell and Trump on stimulus checks has baffled Democrats, but they've welcomed the president's support for more money to go to struggling Americans.
"I never thought we'd live in this alternate reality where Democrats and President Trump are on the same team against Senator McConnell," Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois tweeted on Wednesday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, even blew up a tweet from Trump exhibiting his support for $2,000 checks while on the Senate floor on Wednesday. Sanders referred to Trump as an "unlikely ally."
—Ali Zaslav (@alizaslav) December 30, 2020
McConnell vs. Trump
Trump vetoed the $741 billion defense bill or NDAA, which is usually passed and signed without much fuss, last week. The president was against the defense bill because it did not include a provision repealing Section 230, an aspect of the Communications Decency Act that shields social media companies from liability for third-party content posted on their platforms. The issue is unrelated to national defense.
The president also took issue with a provision of the defense bill that permitted the renaming of US military bases commemorating Confederate leaders.
But, in a rare move, McConnell went against Trump and urged his GOP colleagues to vote in favor of the bill. The NDAA passed in the upper chamber with a veto-proof majority.
The House subsequently voted to override Trump's veto and the Senate is poised to follow, with McConnell leading the charge.
Meanwhile, McConnell is also working to derail Trump's call for COVID-19 stimulus checks to be increased to $2,000.
The latest COVID-19 stimulus package includes direct payments of $600 for eligible Americans. Trump initially refused to sign the bill as he pushed for fatter checks, delaying unemployment assistance to millions of Americans in the process. He finally lent his signature to the $900 billion package on Sunday.
The House on Monday passed a standalone bill raising the checks to $2,000, but McConnell is refusing to follow suit.
McConnell pulls one of his classic maneuvers to kill the push for more assistance to Americans
Politically, it's a risky move for Republicans to reject calls for more assistance to Americans as the US COVID-19 outbreak surges and millions are struggling financially. There is broad support among voters, across partisan lines, for $2,000 checks.
This helps explain why GOP Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who are running for reelection in a crucial Georgia runoff election set for January 5, have come out in support of Trump's call for the $2,000 checks. If Loeffler and Perdue lose, Democrats will gain a majority in the Senate. Recent polling shows the two GOP senators trailing their Democratic opponents.
Trump on Monday said Republicans refusing to support the $2,000 checks must have a "death wish."
—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 29, 2020
McConnell has responded to the pressure with the type of legislative maneuver that has typified his career.
He's packaging the $2,000 checks together with Trump's demands for an investigation into alleged voter fraud and the repeal of Section 230.
Democratic leaders have made clear they would never agree to tying the issues together and have accused McConnell of adding poison pills to the standalone bill in order to kill the effort to increase the direct payments.
—Maddow Blog (@MaddowBlog) December 30, 2020
McConnell is aware Democrats would not support such a package - but that's the point.
By tying the three issues together McConnell creates the appearance of giving the $2,000 checks a fair shot, when in reality he's ensured the issue is dead in the water. And by attaching the checks to Trump's demands, McConnell can also reject allegations of opposing the president's agenda as he seeks to paint Democrats as the true villains.
"Here's the deal," McConnell said on the Senate floor on Tuesday as he rejected further attempts from Democrats on the $2,000 checks. "The Senate is not going to split apart the three issues that President Trump linked together just because Democrats are afraid to address two of them."
The GOP leader also suggested that if Congress agreed to bigger direct payments it would effectively be sending money to people who don't really need it. "The Senate's not going to be bullied into rushing out more borrowed money into the hands of Democrats' rich friends who don't need the help," McConnell said.
McConnell will get what he wants but it could come at a huge cost
The $2,000 checks have also become intertwined with the override of Trump's NDAA veto.
While leading the charge in the Senate for a vote to approve $2,000 checks this week, Sanders blocked McConnell's push for fast-track vote to override Trump. Though Sanders can delay the veto override in his effort to pressure the GOP to support $2,000 checks, he can't block it altogether. A vote will occur on New Years Day at the latest.
McConnell excoriated Sanders over the move, accusing the Vermont senator of attempting to "defund the Pentagon" and attempting to "muscle through" a measure that "would add half a trillion to the national debt."
Democrats have scoffed at assertions from Republicans regarding adding to the deficit by providing more assistance to Americans, pointing to their efforts to lower taxes for the wealthy and overwhelming support for the massive $741 billion defense bill.
"I don't want to hear that we can't afford it. I don't want to hear that it would add too much to the deficit," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Tuesday. "Senate Republicans added nearly $2 trillion to the deficit to give corporations a massive tax cut."
"My Republican colleagues seem more interested in funding defense than funding the defenseless," Sen. Ed Markey of Massachussetts said Tuesday.
In the end, however, it appears that McConnell will get everything he wants. And he'll be delivering major legislative defeats to Trump during the twilight of his time in office - including the first successful veto override of his presidency out of nine vetoes in total. It's a dramatic, and in many ways unexpected, ending to a chaotic era.
But while McConnell will seemingly win this week's legislative battles, rejecting the popular $2,000 check proposal could cost the GOP its majority in the Senate if it turns enough voters against the party with the Georgia runoff less just six days away.